After Neithan had finished his guard duty the next afternoon, he turned his feet towards his lodgings. Arriving at the boarding house, he hurried down the hallway by the kitchen, but could not escape the keen eyes of the mistress of the house. "Sergeant," her welcoming voice halted him at the doorway of the kitchen, "supper will be served within the hour. As chance would have it, upon the menu tonight is your favorite dish, beef and carrots served with small onions cooked in cream sauce. I was fortunate enough to obtain some freshly churned butter from a vendor's wagon this afternoon, and with my fresh bread - of which I am quite proud - you should be well pleased. Shall I lay a place for you at the table, Sergeant?"
"Nay, Mistress, I am in a bit of a rush right now. Set some food aside for me, though, and I will eat it cold upon my return. Now if you should excuse me, I will be going to my quarters."
"Sergeant, please wait," she exhorted him as she followed him into the hall.
"What is it?" He paused and turned to her.
"Sergeant, you have boarded here for the past two years, and both my husband and I feel we know you quite well by this time. He and I have been talking, and we have both concluded that you seem worried about something. You have confided in us in the past, and I just wanted to say that you should feel free to do so now if something is bothering you." The elderly woman gave him an encouraging smile as she clasped her hands before her.
"Mistress, nay, thank you for your concern, but my problems are my own. Now I do not mean to be discourteous, but I would like to change my clothing before I go out," he replied coolly.
"Certainly, sir. I understand, but we thought we should offer to help you if we could," Meldis murmured regretfully.
"Your concern is appreciated, Mistress," he replied quickly and turned and fled towards the stairway.
After bathing his face, neck and hands in a basin of water and putting on fresh clothing, down to the hose upon his legs, he planned to go to Lhûnwen's house and find out the truth. Leaving the boarding house, he strode rapidly down the main thoroughfare of this level of the city until he came to a poorer section. Taking a shortcut down an alley and then up a side street, he saw ahead of him an open doorway.
As he approached, a large, buxom matron pushed a young girl through the entryway and into the street. The girl's eyes were filled with fear as she glanced over her shoulder at the closing door. When she turned towards him, he saw a tender young bud with a face that was pure innocence, her pale skin lily white and almost translucent. A timorous sigh escaped her lips and she held her hands to her breast as though she were stilling the rapid pace of her heart. When she finally spoke, her manner was more settled, and her gentle, melodious voice was as soft as the cooing of the turtle-dove.
"Sir, if you should have time to tarry for a while with an humble girl, I - I invite you to come inside." Deep-set and dark, embellished with kohl, the pupils enlarged with belladonna, her eyes had difficulty meeting his cool gray ones as she flushed shyly. Her sheer, diaphanous blue gown did little to conceal a willowy body that he judged had only recently reached womanhood.
"I could show you some of my... charms... if you should like, sir," she whispered haltingly as her trembling fingers raised up the hem of her gown, displaying a trim set of ankles and graceful calves. Her eyelashes fluttering softly, she let the skirt drift slowly back to her shoes. "When you go to my room, I will let you see the rest of me. I am not expensive, and you can have my - my favors by the hour for a silver coin, or by the night for four silvers."
Walking closer, Neithan took her chin between his hands and looked into her eyes. "I see you have been instructed well in how to play the part of the sweet young innocent so recently stripped of her virginity by some cruel man who exploited you and then betrayed you. Given all that, you are a pretty piece of baggage - at least from what I can see of your outward appearance. How do I know, though, that your intimate parts are not eaten up with the pox? I am careful where I dip my wick."
"Oh, no, sir, I assure you that I am clean and do not have the canker from the East! You are quite safe in my bed," she reassured him as she stretched forth a dainty white hand and boldly curled her fingers over the outline of his manhood. Catching the scowl of disapproval on his face, she pulled her hand back as though she had touched a hot iron. "My lord, I did not mean to be presumptuous, but you are quite a handsome man and well favored in your manly parts."
"And you are the usual flattering, lying little tart," Neithan laughed cynically. "Like your kind, all you want is my money. The only difference I can detect between you and your sisters in the trade is that you are younger than most of them and so must not have been long at your profession."
"While it is true that I am young, I have much experience, sir, and have been well trained in the arts of love, even being instructed in the erotic love arts of the distant East. There are many ways to please a man in bed, and I know most of them. Come inside with me, and I will make you forget your cares." Hesitantly, she laid her hand on his arm.
"You little harlot, you should be in the public gaol for soliciting openly," Neithan chuckled, amused by the girl.
"Oh, please, sir, do not report me to the guards! I will leave you be and not bother you longer!" The girl looked up at him with eyes close to tears as he continued to hold her face in his hands. "Now please let me go!"
"Not so quickly, wench. While I do not usually find it necessary to lie with trollops, you are a charming little piece, and I would enjoy a tumble with you had I not more important affairs to which to attend."
She looked up at him, relief showing on her pretty face. "Then you do not take offense?"
"Nay, no offense taken. Harlots like you have plied their trade since time began. They serve a purpose, for men have needs which only a wench can satisfy. I am curious about you, though. I will not ask you your age, but you look hardly more than a child! Why do you earn your living in this degrading and sordid manner? Do you out of willingness or out of necessity?"
"What would it matter, sir, to a man like yourself?" she replied bitterly. "You would say it was the same story as that which you have no doubt heard many times before. My parents were poor and illiterate, and my father sold my sister and me when she was little more than eight and I was only nine to a procuress to help finance his addiction to the Eastern poppy. You can be sure, sir, that I did not choose to do this! But now there is nothing left for me to do, for decent folks would not have me."
"I want nothing from you, girl." He reached into the pouch into his belt and drew out a coin. Taking one of her hands in his, he placed the metal disk in her palm and brought the fingers closed about it.
"Are you sure, sir? I will not forget your kindness!" she exclaimed as she drew his other hand up to her lips and kissed it adoringly.
"This is for you, so keep it secret and do not give it to the brothel keeper. This is one coin you earned honestly and not while on the flat of your back." He stepped away from her.
"She will never know about it, sir," she replied emphatically. "You saw the despicable old harridan when she pushed me out into the street to solicit. Thank you, thank you for the coin! And should you ever be sad and lonely, and in need of comfort, my name is Mírgalen."
As he felt the pangs of passion heating up his loins, Neithan admitted to himself that the girl was having an effect upon him. Even though he felt pity and compassion for this tender young waif, the ache between his legs told him that he wanted the sweet prostitute. But was she really so innocent, or was she only playing the part? What was real anymore? Did it really even matter?
With a low, deep growl in his throat, he pulled Mírgalen in his arms and drove his lips down upon hers in a fierce kiss. Wild surges of emotion were pouring through his mind, and he felt the animal urge to pull her down on the pavement and have her right in the alley. "No, no," he told himself, "it would be pure madness to rut with her like an animal in the street! It only makes sense to go with her inside the brothel."
There was still plenty of time to satisfy his lusts upon this girl before he went to see Lhûnwen. How would she ever know? Perhaps out of spite, he would lie with the girl. Two could play at the game of deceit as easily as one, and Lhûnwen should pay for the pain that she had caused him! No, no! This was wrong! He was not thinking clearly. He had allowed his mind to rage out of control as he held this gentle, willing girl. To do such a thing was beneath his dignity, and he must put the dishonorable thought out of his mind. His eyes smoldering with the dark fires of lust, he held her gaze as he stroked her soft cheek with the back of his hand.
"Farewell, Mírgalen," he whispered softly.
He turned quickly on his heel and left her standing alone in the street. As she looked at his retreating form, she brushed away a tear from her eye with the back of her hand and turned the kohl on her eyes into a sooty smudge.
"Goodbye, sir," she called after him.
Neithan quickly left the alleyway where he had found the girl, his rapid pace almost a run. Lhûnwen! What a farce she was! She was far lower than the little bawd, for she, the lady of respectable birth and breeding, willingly played the part of the whore, while Mírgalen had been forced into a life of degradation by circumstance and fate. As he came to a corner, Neithan passed the town crier, who scarcely noticed him as he went about his tasks of calling out the time. Neithan would remember later that the hour was nine o'clock.
His hand was a tight clenched fist as he brought it up to the eagle door-knocker. The urge to pound upon the oak door or break it in with a pounding thrust of his shoulder was strong in his mind. Instead, like a reasonable man, he took a deep breath to steady his nerves, and, unclenching his fingers, he rapped politely upon the door.
"Oh, sir," Díneneth greeted him, her eyes reddened, her lower lip trembling slightly, "it is bad news that I bring you tonight! My lady's trip yesterday proved far too much for her frail constitution. This morning when she and her father returned, the lady was so weak and faint that she swooned as she walked into the house! If it had not been for Balharn, the boy whom the master keeps to tend to his horses and do the other outside work, I swear I do not know what we would have done! As it was, it was all the youth and I could do to get her upstairs to her room. Sir, if that were not enough, her poor father - you know he is constantly ailing and so worried about his poor brother and all - was so upset that he took to his bed shortly afterwards, and has not been up since." Pausing to catch her breath after her rapid torrent of words, Díneneth looked at Neithan for sympathy.
"I want to see her," Neithan hissed from between clenched teeth, each word as quiet as a drop of acid falling through still air.
"Oh, sir, I am afraid that will be quite impossible!" A look of incredulous amazement upon her face, Díneneth clutched at her heart. "The lady has scarcely stirred all day and can hold nothing in her stomach! She is too weak to have company!"
"I am not exactly company," Neithan growled, his words edged with dire warning. "She and I are to be wed in the autumn. Now move aside, Díneneth!"
"Why, sir, what has come over you?" the maid gasped in alarm as she stepped backward into the room. "I have never seen you like this before! Are you well, sir?"
"I have never been more well in my life!" he laughed.
"But you cannot--"
Despite the maid's loud protests, Neithan rushed by her and took the steps two at a time. Reaching the second floor hallway, he moved quickly to Lhûnwen's room. Jerking the door open, he found Lhûnwen lying in her bed, her eyes closed as though in sleep, her chest rapidly rising and falling beneath the coverlet that was drawn up to her neck. At the window beside her bed, the drapery fluttered gently, as though a breeze had stirred it... or someone had just made a hasty exit out the window. Hearing footsteps behind him, Neithan turned and frowned as he saw the maid, who was breathing hard after her rapid ascent up the stairs.
"Oh, sir, you should not have come up here!" Díneneth uttered mournfully. "You should have let the lady rest undisturbed!"
"Neithan," came the soft sigh of Lhûnwen's voice as she slowly sat up in the bed, pushing her tangled, disheveled hair away from her face. "Oh, my love, you should not have come here! I would not have had you see me like this!"
Neithan thought that her deep gray eyes - which were dilated from sleep, or perhaps pleasure - looked as guilty as a traitor. Her face was flushed as though she were ill... or perhaps just recently caught in the throes of passion.
"Who was here, Lhûnwen?" His voice was a snarl. "I know someone was!"
"What are you talking about?" she exclaimed shrilly.
"The drape at the window, my sweet... obviously your lover made his escape before I could catch the two of you in the act!"
"No, you are imagining things! I have no lover, save you!"
"That is where you are lying!" he shouted, his voice booming off the walls of the small room. "You have lied all along!"
"Oh, no, sir! Please believe me!" came Díneneth's pleading voice behind him. "She has never once lied to you!"
When Neithan turned to the maid, his eyes were dark slits of fury, and Díneneth drew back in fear.
"Leave this room, you whining strumpet! Did he have you, too, on the other nights? All of you must think I am a total fool! You with your stinking cheap perfume and Lhûnwen with her wantonness should be walking the streets, since your true talents lie in spreading your legs for any man! Díneneth, you have always tried to throw yourself at me! Is that what you did with him? I know you have always wanted me to sink my sword into your sheath! You little whore! You are hot for any man... just like my betrothed!" When he raised his hand to strike Díneneth, the maid screamed and fled the room in terror.
"Oh, my heart!" Lhûnwen cried. "Are you drunk upon wine? I cannot believe the things you are saying about Díneneth and me!"
"Tell me the name of the man, Lhûnwen! Tell me his name so that I may kill him!"
"There was no one, Neithan," she sobbed, trembling under the cover. "Oh, my beloved! What has come over you?"
Tearing the sheet away from her, Neithan stared down at her naked body as she shrieked and futilely grabbed for the blanket. "You filthy harlot! You and your bed reek of the stench of fornication! Maybe I should add my seed to his!" he bellowed as he gripped her arms and dragged her from the bed to face him. His hands held her roughly by the shoulders as he shook her violently.
"No, Neithan, please!" she screamed repeatedly, her eyes wide with fear. "I have done nothing!"
One hand tightly gripping her shoulder, the other grabbing a fistful of her hair, he pulled her face close to him and tried to force his tongue between her unyielding lips. "So ungenerous with me, Lhûnwen?" He moved his mouth away from hers and rested it against the side of her face, his beard pressing into her sensitive skin. "You gave freely to him! Why not me? Was I not good enough for you?" Moving his mouth back on hers, his teeth caught her lower lip and ground down savagely as she yelped in pain. Uncaring of her hurt, he kissed her over and over again, his tongue thrusting deeply inside her bleeding mouth. Sobbing, she ceased struggling and let her body go limp. Finally he drew away from her and slapped her across the mouth, bursting her lip and sending more blood streaming down the side of her face.
"What was his name? Was it Hallas? Tell me, Lhûnwen, or I will beat it out of you!"
"There was no man! Surely, how could you ever think such terrible things about Hallas and me? Why can you not believe what I say?" she gasped as blood ran down her throat and she choked upon the salty liquid.
"Because you are a liar, Lhûnwen! You have always lied to me!" He slapped her across the nose with such force that it caused a gush of crimson to spurt out her nostrils. "I warned you, Lhûnwen! Damn it, I warned you!"
"You have gone mad, Neithan!"
"Perhaps, but you have driven me to it!" He grabbed her shoulders again and shook her until her head rocked back and forth on her neck.
A door slammed somewhere down below and they heard Díneneth's terrified voice crying, "They are up there! Please help my lady before he kills her! He has gone mad!" Gruff voices of assurance soothed her frantic pleas as heavy boots rushed up the stairs.
"Damn, the guards! One last kiss, my love, before I find that bastard and kill him!" Snarling as his mouth bore down on hers, he then threw her to the floor to lie there sobbing as he made his flight out the open window.